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'Hot Spots,' 'Bright Spots,' and Hidden Strengths in Capacity

Tom Grubisich's picture

There is a laser-like focus on the capacity of developing countries to respond effectively to the steep challenges of their Millennium Development Goals and

Ethiopian farmer, with his children, shows newly irrigated crop to extension agent.

destructive climate change.  Capacity gaps are relentlessly pinpointed.  Sometimes national governments themselves provide the toughest evaluations, like this one from Bangladesh's Ministry of Environment and Forest on the country's climate adaptation action program:

"...institutional capacity including human resource quality [is] weak and poor and needs substantial improvement if the challenges of climate change are to be faced squarely....A lack of awareness, both of the potential gravity and the extent of the problem as well as possible actions that could be taken, is the foremost [barrier]. This lack of awareness exists at all levels from national level policy makers to sectoral and local level officials as well as amongst civil society and the most vulnerable communities themselves...."

There are, to be sure, capacity gaps in Bangladesh and other developing countries, and identifying what and where they are is the first step in closing them.  But there are also "bright spots" and, perhaps more important, underlying strengths, especially at the local level across all developing countries that can be masked by the emphasis on gaps.

The bright spots are exemplified by this report by DM2009 finalist Tsegay Wolde-Georgis on a "successful local based and cost effective intervention that transformed a food-insecure, drought-prone Ethiopian village into a sustainable community"  (Tsegay highlighted the report in his comment on an earlier post on this blog.)

What happened in the Ethiopian village of Abraha wa Atsbeha (photo above) is not an isolated case.  Communities elsewhere, many of them just as poor and climate-stressed, are tapping into and mobilizing their "how to" capacity to solve daunting challenges -- providing telling lessons for national governments that are supposed to be leading the way.  Once again, the truism "Think globally, act locally" is reinforced.

Look what flowed from DM2006 winner BP Agrawal's US$200,000 water-harvesting pilot in the arid state of Rajasthan in western India.  The project was a big success, with the six pilot communities chipping in 30 to 40 percent of the cost of the infrastructure to capture rainwater from rooftops and channel it into easily accessible wells.  But Agrawal encountered bureaucratic inertia at both the state and national levels when he sought help to expand the project to more communities.  Finally, in April 2009, when the Indian Supreme Court ordered the national government to act in the country's accelerating national water crisis, Agrawal got the attention of government officials.  When they saw villagers' bank passbooks with regular water-harvesting payments, they were amazed.  "I'm going to support it," one key official told Agrawal, he said in an interview.  Villagers, of course, had made their collective decision with their precious rupees a couple of years before.

The team that won a US$117,000 DM aware in 2000 for the first ever weather-based index insurance also tapped into the capacity potential of local communities.  Team member Panos Varangis -- then a senior economist with the World Bank and now a banking specialist with the International Finance Corp., recalled in an interview how the idea took root in subsistence agricultural communities in Ethiopia, one of the pilot countries:

"There was a need for capacity building among all the stakeholders.  With the farmer whom you expect to buy insurance, you need to make it very plain -- this [water-based insurance] works this way.  We had a blackboard and said, 'This is the contract,' and we have the farmer go up to the board and we said, 'The rainfall is X.  Can you calculate how much you can pay [for insurance]?'  And he makes the calculation, and it works."

Gaps in capacity get more attention than strengths, say the authors of a 2008 study report commissioned by the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD):

"Weaknesses are easier to assess and analyse, and can be ascribed to generic, technical, tangible gaps in skills and resources. Strengths tend to have more to do with country-specific intangibles, often associated with culture and informal practices that do not lend themselves to rapid assessment and diagnosis."  But the study emphasizes: "...all groups and organisations have sources of potential achievement that can be leveraged to create development value."

Just ask the villagers in Rajasthan and Ethiopia.  No capacity gaps there.

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